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Old, million-dollar violins don’t play better than the new models

The old adage tells us not to judge a book by its cover, and now it seems as though we shouldn’t judge a violin by its price. Violins crafted in the so-called "golden age" by expert makers Antonio Stradivari and Guiseppe Guarneri "del Gesu" are worth up to several million dollars each, and they have long been considered the best violins in the world. However, nobody has studied whether or not these instruments are actually superior to other violins in their tonal qualities. New research in PNAS shows that these lofty prices might not actually reflect how musicians actually feel about the instruments themselves.

The research took place at the Eighth International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, a prestigious gathering of violinists, violin experts, and violin makers. Twenty-one subjects were included in the experiment, and all were very experienced violinists. The researchers used six violins in their tests; three were new high-quality violins, ranging from just a few days to a few years old, and three were old violins (two Stradivari and a del Gesu) crafted in the 1700’s. The three old violins were worth a combined total of $10 million, which was about one hundred times the combined value of the new ones. The musicians were unaware of the objective of the experiment, as well as the identities of the six violins used.

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